Hello, darlings, for some of us it's been a while. If you know me, you know I don't like to start posting a story until I'm well, WELL into the writing, and I'm not very far with this one. But I need a kick in the pants to buckle down on my writing, and since tomorrow we start a new Celtic year, I figured, why not offer chapter one to test the waters? After all, sequels are not always a good idea. I'll need you guys to let me know if this one was or not, and I will of course understand those who don't want to take the risk and avoid this story.

For the rest of you, The Madness of Angels didn't really end with its ending. We've completed the circle of abuse, now it's time to take a journey toward redemption.

Also, for all those of you who've asked to be informed when I publish an original work, consider yourself informed. See my profile page for a link to my book FAQ and ordering details. :) Original characters, but angst and yaoi-ness, of course.

Okay. I own what I own, Squeenix owns what they own. Happy Halloween, guys. I love you.

"Becoming conscious is of course a sacrilege against
nature; it is as though you had robbed the unconsciousof something."
- Carl Jung

THE MEASURE OF MAN
Chapter One - Midnight Shakes The Memory

I do not continue to exist, so much as I am constantly reborn. In the warm dark I drift in cradling seas, and in the womb the planet made for me I am alone. Thus far only the Dark Ones, who spoke with menace of purity and reaping, have disturbed this dream-like state, and they retreated at last when She came. She comes to me sometimes, and though She never stays long, when Her arms spread wide the darkness...for a moment, all is light. Blinding, unpoisoned by the dark goddess, sky and sea to my iron and blood. She hurts me with all that I am not. It is a kind of brilliant pain.

My hell is Her absence, my punishment memory. My life as Genesis Rhapsodos is clearer to me here than ever before, the wounded child, the weaver of terrible webs. In death only have I come to understand the sorrow I inflicted on the living. So many nameless faces in nostalgic moonlight. Goro's childish features still in death. The blond boy who became a hero. Angeal's precious Puppy. Angeal, my dearest friend, who tended my childhood scrapes and forgave my adult crimes. Angeal, you were not the one I wanted, but you were the first thing I remember loving, even before Her.

I know the story is not over, because I breathe still, and I hear. Because I long for Him as much as ever I did and always I will. I believe He lives but cannot know, and that is my other punishment - I can sense Angeal, and Zack, and the other self-aware spirits in the Lifestream. But I cannot sense Him.

Even so, I have not given up. The planet turns, the fields renew their green, and the tale is passed on. The Goddess has not one hero, but three, and they must gather together to meet their fates. I am growing stronger here in this guf, and I have been since the Dark Ones came. She needs me at last, and will send me in due time to those who are reaching out to me. Nothing shall forestall my return, and nothing will stop me from saving Him or helping the one who can.

The only question...is who is it that is calling me.

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"I'm sorry to call you here again."

She laughed, a sound like many tiny bells, not because his expression or earnestness was funny, but because the love that permeated this part of the Lifestream comforted her. She stepped into the house, out of the surrounding garden and green-scented air, and lay a delicate hand on his broad arm. Even worry-prone Angeal couldn't be very disturbed in this heaven, but he relaxed a little at her touch, and the contrast was enough to make her realize how anxious he was.

"I don't mind. Take me to him."

Aerith knew the way to the bedroom, as well as she knew her own small cottage or her parents', but she followed behind Angeal, and peered from around him when they reached the wide bed. Zack was curled up on it, eyes squeezed shut in an unnatural unconsciousness. He was a teenager here, having reverted to the age of his happiest time, and as always Aerith was reminded of their first meeting. Attraction, a crush, friendship that couldn't be more. It no longer mattered, but he looked so young, and she felt so old.

"He's been like this a lot. I'm not sure what's wrong, he just says he's tired."

Aerith nodded. Sleep was unnecessary here, which made excessive amounts of it an oddity. She touched Zack's cool forehead, felt his life-pulse fluttering like a strong wind. It was good and steady, but flickering almost, pushing a large quantity of its energy somewhere else.

"I think he's lending strength to someone."

"Cloud?"

At the name spoken, Zack opened his eyes and smiled dreamily. "Hey, Aer. Is Angeal worrying again?"

"Puppy..."

"I'm fine."

"Cloud will be too," Aerith said with quiet certainty.

"I'm sorry to worry you guys, and I know Cloud's tough, but he's still reeling from the memories he got back." Zack pushed his way up to a sitting position, and leaned into Angeal who came closer. "They're distracting him, and he needs all the focus he can get. That mess with DeepGround isn't over, and he'll always have another battle ahead of him."

He didn't mention Sephiroth, though they were all thinking of him. Not a day went by that Angeal didn't pray for his old friend, and he suspected Zack did the same. Aerith thought of her father, whom she'd gotten to know only after death. The Lifestream was not a void that cancelled out the regrets of life. Gast still wept whenever Sephiroth's name was spoken in his presence.

"Tell him I'm fine, Aer."

"You'll continue to be tired if you keep diverting so much of your strength."

"I've got someone whipped enough to carry me around," Zack said, looking with a smile up at Angeal.

The density of the emotion passing constantly between them made the air heavy. Aerith excused herself for the lighter breath of the surrounding garden outside, where she was always welcome and at home. Angeal brushed a few stray spikes from Zack's forehead, and his hand lingered there for a moment, as though feeling for a fever that was long gone.

"Sorry to worry you. But it's not like I'm in any danger here, and Cloud...you understand, right?"

"The only thing I don't understand is how I managed to get you," Angeal said tenderly. Zack had teased him often that once free from his earthly guilt, he had become a total sap.

Of course, Zack had his moments too. "Answer to a prayer, remember?"

"My message of the gods." The memory these words evoked still brought a few tears out of Zack; Angeal kissed each away as soon as it escaped, and lowered himself onto Zack with his knees resting on either side of the boy.

Sex here was the same ecstatic experience Zack had tried futilely to capture in writing, only longer, easier, without the little aches that accompanied it on Gaia. The pair's clothing faded as soon as they wanted it to, and Angeal slid inside with no preparation, knowing he was unable to hurt Zack this way and encouraged by that.

"You never hurt me doing this," Zack whispered, easily catching the thought, before his voice faded into a soft moan.

It wasn't better in death than it had been in life, they had agreed. Just easier, even easier for Zack to hold Angeal to him with the wrap of smooth legs around him, less resistance for Angeal to find as he sank as deep as he could with each thrust. The natural state of the Lifestream was a sort of faint, continuous pleasure; this was a wild and intense one, lightning compared to a candle flame.

Zack was too weak to do much more than hang on and try to meet each push with his hips, but he was a teenager again, and it was no unusual thing for him to let Angeal take the lead. Rank, position, things like like that were swept away by death, but a person's nature remained the same, and Zack was as always content to be Angeal's -

"Puppy, my baby Puppy," Angeal murmured, lifting Zack's spirit-body up to cradle it as he continued. His soul cried to the younger what it always did, what the nickname had always meant - love, love.

Zack shuddered and came once, twice, the number of spurts blurring together as he began the orgasm that could last for hours. Angeal's mouth met his and swallowed his sweet whimpers, noises of concentration as well as pleasure. Zack was even using the energy generated by their coupling to lend strength to Cloud.

Angeal smiled, open-mouthed around a groan. Here, where souls' hearts were open to each other, there was no jealousy. Here, free from the darkness of Jenova's influence, he felt only touched by Zack's devotion. He might have said something gentle, or let his mind do so, had Zack not suddenly cried out in alarm.

Angeal pulled him close and held him tightly, not needing to ask what was wrong. He too had felt the shadow of something distant and poisonous probe their happy refuge like an all-seeing and evil eye. Worse than this by far was the form Angeal - and certainly Zack as well - sensed it was inhabiting. Together, still joined at the roots of their spirit-bodies, the dead lovers put their foreheads together and prayed silently for Sephiroth.

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Aerith took her time outside, in no hurry to anywhere else. She loved the immense surrounding garden Angeal had created for Zack, and that they now tended together. She had her own flowers, of course, even more beautiful than those she'd grown on Gaia, but this place soothed her, because here the voices were soft.

There was always one Cetra who remained whole and unabsorbed by the Lifestream, the voices of her people told Aerith when she knelt among the petals to hear them, always one whose personality stayed unfragmented in order to be their representative. The one who had been her predecessor in this was a kind man she had met only briefly, when the task passed from him to her. It had been so quick, all of it. A prayer, a brief pain, the sense of sinking into warm green light, and he was there, assuring Aerith that her prayer had been heard and would be answered. She had not given any thought to refusing (or trying to) the charge to speak for the Cetra, and since then, existence had been mostly the peace of listening and soothing new arrivals. Life now seemed like a great hurrying that led to a long wait.

The moments of crisis were rare, usually involved helping Cloud, and were welcome reminders of the living being she had been, the comrades she had fought alongside. Aerith was happy to see Tifa become an adoptive mother, Vincent begin to seek forgiveness, Yuffie mature without losing her spirit. And Cloud, of course, Cloud was a popular subject in the Lifestream. Cloud was a constant work-in-progress and a difficult one at that, but as Zack liked to cheerfully say, "Who isn't?"

"You fell through the roof, see? It surprised me!"

Cloud had surprised her, in more ways than one. Aerith had given up on her blooming love for Zack once she realized his heart was elsewhere, but his disappearance had been no less devastating for that. When Cloud appeared, believing he was a SOLDIER and sharing so many of Zack's mannerisms, it was like being offered a second chance. Before a cascade of yellow Banoran lilies, Aerith tilted her head down and offered Gaia a prayer of thanks for the time she'd had with Cloud, the chance she'd gotten to grow to love the real him.

Cupping a bloom delicately, Aerith laughed and mused that she seemed to have a knack for picking guys who were already taken. The thought was light, but it ended in a shudder of cold. The space overhead, usually a pale sunset-rainbow of clouds, was turning gray, and Aerith briefly and absurdly felt that the false sky was threatening to crush her. Breathing was only a leftover habit here, but so was panicking when the lungs tighten and the air leaves them. She could only turn her head and widen her green eyes as the flowers, row by row, shriveled with cold and began to blacken, until the garden was no longer vital but a place of death...

...and the dark feeling was gone, as quickly as it had come. Whatever malevolence had taken hold had vanished without a trace, and the flowers were all blooming and the air sweet. Aerith breathed it in gratefully, shivering though the chill had disappeared.

scscscsc

The light from the fireplace dimmed for a few moments, as though the flames were being smothered. The darkness of shadow fell across an open book, which the graying man closed on his lap. "My poor boy," he whispered, and began to cry without sound.

scscscsc

ShinRa's new headquarters were significantly less impressive than the sprawling compound that Weapon had laid waste to. It was one building only, a modest almost-skyscraper on the outskirts of Edge, purposely no closer to avoid reminding citizens of its presence. They had reasons to hate the ShinRa of old, and New ShinRa had yet to sufficiently prove itself.

The structure was still in the slow process of being re-modeled, so far containing little more than offices, living quarters and a few facilities. It was quiet in a way the Compound had never been, so new that its only ghosts were the ones Tseng carried with him. The ground floor, where he entered and headed for the elevator, was silent, all in a clean disarray that was nowhere near feeling like home yet.

Even the sound of his polished shoes on the tile didn't sound right, Tseng noted, because noticing was part of being a Turk.

The lab was a short trip away, just one floor down to the basement. The descent and the faint chemical smell still twisted Tseng's stomach, and he never felt fully reassured until he was inside and saw no sign of Hojo. Dr. Enji Kanawa, the new head of the science department, had so far proved to be a good, moral man, dedicated to his work but careful not to cause undue harm. Everything Hojo had not been, but Tseng had come here to see someone else. Being a reasonable man, the head Turk had long ago accepted that there were some affections and worries neither time nor change could alter.

Kanawa stood as Tseng approached, though his eyes didn't leave his monitors. "I thought you might show up, Commander. I tried to let him go hours ago, but he keeps pushing himself."

Tseng nodded, just once. With the company low in man-power and new threats constantly arising, ShinRa needed every advantage it could get. This was clearly what Reno believed, because the very same day Kanawa had been hired, he had marched to the lab and offered himself as a subject...or perhaps partner would be a better term. Reno being able to control his visions and use them to gather intelligence would certainly be an extraordinary advantage, but there had been no luck yet, no matter what drugs or hypnosis or meditation they had tried. The flashes of prophecy still came only randomly, and were often so cryptic that nothing could be inferred from them.

Tseng looked at Reno's lithe and wiry form laying on the padded exam table, and felt a swirl of cold in his stomach. Kanawa is not Hojo, he told himself, mildly annoyed, and examined Reno more closely. Fists clenched, legs slightly bent, pale brows furrowed over a defiant scowl. The boy was trying so hard...no, he was an adult now, free to choose to do this, and Tseng suddenly missed the teenager who'd tagged after him, played pranks like an unruly son.

"Since we've never been able to record his stats during a vision, we don't know what conditions are needed to induce them," the doctor was saying, a graying Wutaian ex-patriate who reminded Tseng of his father. "My present theory is that the flashes come during a state of alertness rather than any of the unconscious levels, so I haven't given him anything this time. But he must be getting tired."

Tseng's arms were crossed, and his fingers twitched lightly against his tie. They wanted to reach for something. He decided to pretend he didn't know what a little longer.

"Commander? Reno drew a sketch of what he remembered from the last vision. Does it look at all familiar?"

Tseng studied the paper he was handed, then set it down. "No. This is the 'strange floor' he mentioned?"

"What he could remember of it. I don't see how it's so strange in itself, that diamond-shapes tile pattern isn't uncommon."

"What about the green stuff all over it, is that mako or pure Lifestream?"

"He doesn't know."

"Damn it!"

The monitors displaying Reno's vitals began a soft alarm when he ripped the wires off his head and wrists and sat up. Dr. Kanawa busied himself shutting the noise off, while Tseng went to Reno.

"You don't need to push yourself like this."

"You don't understand. It's like everything I need to know is in here - " Reno waved his hands around his head - "and I just can't get to it."

"The information will come. Your warning about DeepGround came early enough for us to act on it."

"What if the next warning comes too late, or not at all? Anyway..." Reno pushed his brilliant red hair, down from its usual ponytail, behind his shoulder. "Rufus might have ended up funding the WRO anyway. He wants to make amends to the planet."

"You exhausting yourself won't accomplish that."

"Rufus isn't pushing me to do this, if that's where you're going. I want to help him. I want to do all I can for New ShinRa."

"It's late. Do it tomorrow."

"You never change," Reno said lowly, but eased himself off the table. "Sorry, doc. Can we pick it up tomorrow?"

"I'll be here."

Tseng placed one hand loosely on Reno's shoulder as they walked and left it there. He felt the change in posture the moment it happened, when they were only a few steps from the elevator. Reno froze in his tracks and his body seized up, pushing him onto the balls of his feet and pulling a sharp inhaling sound from his open mouth. Kanawa futilely tried to get the monitoring equipment in time, but Reno didn't seem to notice. He was only seeing something terrible, and Tseng was only seeing Reno, quietly panicking at the dumb terror in jade-green eyes.

"Reno, you're in a safe place. Say what you see."

Low keening answered him, like the death groan of a wounded wolf. Kanawa was closer now, casting Sense, but Tseng felt glued to Reno's faraway expression. The boy's eyes rolled back and forth rapidly, like he was reading something or trying to take in every detail of it. He rocked forward on his toes, then backward, and Tseng carefully steadied him. Reno felt cold beneath the fabric of his white shirt.

"Reno," Tseng whispered, "what do you see?"

Another gasp of inhale answered him. Reno's body twitched violently, and his eyes rolled up to reveal stark whiteness. Tseng was alarmed, even though he'd been present for most of the worst visions.

"Reno, you're safe. What is it?"

The young man blinked suddenly, swapping his eyes back to green and conscious. He was shivering, arms shaking in his damp sleeves, and his haunted expression was more aware than it usually was, and at the same time, somehow, further away.

"Him," Reno croaked, and immediately slumped in a dead faint.

Tseng caught him, held him close, and over the younger's fiery hair, shared a knowing look with Kanawa. A cold shadow had passed through the air, but only Reno had sensed it.

scscscsc

Cloud swung, leaped, somersaulted through the air with blades flying, anything to keep moving. The Schizo he was fighting was immature, and the younger they were the more dangerous, more mobile than their elders. One head belched Fire at him, the other roared Ice, and though he could dodge both, he sometimes let a spell hit him, because pain was a good distraction from hurting.

He had been at this for hours - here he dodged a high-level Fire and watched it incinerate a young tree - and doing the same thing for weeks. Memories and feelings surged up, Cloud risked his life killing until they went away. The forests around Midgar and Edge were quickly being emptied of monsters, and the townspeople thought Cloud was just being the hero they knew him as. No one understood, not even Tifa who tried so hard. The Cloud released from the pages of Zack's memoir was no hero, just a lovesick boy clashing with an adult who alternately pitied and loathed him.

I love a dead man.

It was too clear now, too sharp. Every second of confusion before Meteorfall, every perplexed moment of obsessing over Sephiroth, now made a perfect and agonizing sense. And the memories were a relentless flood. Cloud woke up, and he recalled his teenage dreams of his crush, the sticky blankets and primal guilt. He walked to the bathroom, and he was fourteen again, curled up like a standing fist in the communal showers and hoping no one would notice. Every door Cloud opened became the door to Sephiroth's office, and he was a nervous child marveling at the general's beauty, looking with wide eyes at a gentle sadness he hadn't expected.

I love a man who will not die.

An expert swipe, and the Schizo's Fire head came off cleanly, with a single wounded howl. It was every battle Cloud had fought while Meteor sailed toward the planet, every death rattle of every beast. There would always be more battles, and more people to be lost, because

I love a man who tried to destroy everything else I care about, and will again.

The maimed dragon redoubled its efforts, its remaining neck moving at whiplash speed. Cloud countered with First Tsurugi easily, mako eyes piercing the late-night dark and increased strength always coming when he needed it. The blast of Ice was silver in the shards of moonlight peeking through the trees, and this was enough to freeze Cloud for a moment. The cold pain of the attack woke him, and he ran forward growling to deal the fatal blow.

Just like I killed Sephiroth. I killed him three times, and it hurt so much, and except for that time in the reactor, I never knew why.

The felled beast was dissolving into the air, becoming particles of light before it could grow cold. Most monsters did this, and no one knew why. Maybe it was how they returned to the circle of life, in body because they had no souls, or maybe their souls were just different. Memory rose up again, and Sephiroth was dissolving into white, devolving into Kadaj, and Cloud was holding the boy because something in him cried for the innocence in his face, the flash of something a little like empathy, much more like

Love. I love Sephiroth.

He wouldn't say it aloud, not to Tifa who'd read Zack's journal, not to himself, not even to Zack when he came and offered a spectral shoulder to lean on. But it was irrefutable. Ever since the first set of flashes, Cloud realized that what he felt for Sephiroth was carved deep into his soul, as much as the instinct to breathe or duck an attack. What he would do with this feeling remained to be seen, though one decision had been made early, without the burden of reality or thought.

I can't kill him again. Never again. Not if he summons Meteor, not if he puts a sword to my throat or anyone else's. I can't do it again.

Cloud Strife fell to his knees, pushed there by a cold shudder that went through him as quick as lightning and was gone. First Tsurugi stood plunged into the dirt before him, and he gripped it with both hands as though in prayer, wondering if the monsters he killed had souls that could be made clean by death, if anyone really did.

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"'...and now that the littlest coeurl knew the true meaning of friendship, he happily went home to his family's den. The end.'"

"One more?" Marlene asked, tired eyes blinking heavily up from the pillow.

"It's time to sleep. Besides, you can read these books by yourself now." At age seven, she really could.

"I like the way you read them. When Daddy's here, he always makes the animals sound grumpy." Marlene yawned. "Tifa?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Are you worried about Cloud?"

"Of course not," Tifa lied with a smile. "He can take care of himself. And you know how Cloud is, sometimes he just needs to go off and be by himself for awhile."

"Is it because he has to fight someone again?"

"I hope not." Tifa wasn't sure yet what to think of Cloud loving Sephiroth, but she knew she was opposed to anything that would cause him grief. "I'm sure he'll come home soon. Now, be good like Denzel and go to sleep, okay?"

"I heard Uncle Cid say you need sleep too."

"I'll sleep once you're asleep," Tifa said cheerfully, though it was possibly a lie. There had been too many dreams lately of Meteor and Nibelheim to let her rest easy. "You want to be rested for school, right?"

"Uh-huh." The little girl's eyes were closing, as much as she tried to keep them open.

Tifa whispered "Sweet dreams", gently kissed Marlene's forehead and got up slowly, so the bedsprings would creak as little as possible. There was plenty of moonlight, so she switched off the pink bedside lamp, and was almost to the half-open door when Marlene's little voice drowsily came to her across the room.

"If you can't sleep because you dream of the bad man, I know how to make him go away. Aren told Kayla, and Kayla told me."

Tifa turned slowly and deliberately, and began to walk back. She recongized the names of Marlene's classmates, but... "Honey, what bad man?"

"The bad man with silver hair and a long sword. He sometimes comes into people's dreams and makes fire and scares you. Haven't you seen him?"

Hardly realizing she spoke out loud, Tifa murmured "Yes. I've seen him."

"S'okay. All you have to do when he comes is ask Gaia to make him go away, and she does, because she's a nice lady, right?"

"That's right. I'll...I'll try that. Good night, Marlene."

"G'night."

Tifa waited until the door was closed behind her to shiver from the faint, internal cold she felt. She rubbed the chill out of her bare arms as she walked down the hall and descended the stairs, praying that she was wrong and that this wasn't a foreboding of yet another horror Cloud would have to face.

To be continued.